A Deadly Reality: The Increasing Presence of Police Brutality & Excessive Force
Each year, the media is pervaded by countless reports of fatal police brutality and injustices that disproportionately affect minorities and people of color. As of August 3, the United States has reported 598 deaths owing to violence by police this year, and in 2019 black Americans accounted for 23% of those killed by police despite representing 13% of the population.1 There have been prominent social movements pushing to an end to racial discrimination and police brutality after the deaths of Michael Brown, Erin Garner, Stephon Clark, Atiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice, and Philando Castille. A major underlying cause of death by police brutality is the use of chokeholds and/or other forms of excessive force that restrict airways.
George Floyd & the Global Spread of the Black Lives Matter Movement
On May 25, George Floyd was arrested by police officers in Minneapolis under the suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store.2 While the four officers detained Floyd, he was pinned to the ground next to one of the police cars with Officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes.3 Floyd repeatedly told the officers and bystanders that he could not breathe. The use of excessive force by Chauvin, and the compliance of these actions by his fellow officers, resulted in the murder of George Floyd. After four days of nationwide protests, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges were issued against Chauvin.4 Over a week after Floyd’s murder, prosecuctors charged the three other officers with abetting second-degree murder.5 The three police officers who oversaw the murder of Floyd are out on bail.
George Floyd’s murder sparked international protests, mass criticism against police brutality and racist institutions & monuments, and the advancement of the Black Lives Matter movement. Other cases of excessive force and a broken justice system were brought to light as a result of injustices to black Americans such as Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Ahmaud Arbery. Globally, protests occurred due to the recognition of similar murders by police officers in their respective countries. In Paris, protestors gathered due to the death of Adama Traoré in 2016, when he died after being restrained by police.6 The streets in Mexico were filled to call for justice for Giovanni Lopez.7 South Africans protested the death of Collins Khoza who died after being beaten by South African security forces.8 The prominent issue of police brutality is not exclusive to the United States; it is a global issue that predominantly affects minorities.
Identical Cases of Murders by Asphyxiation Worldwide
The brutal murder of George Floyd happened to be caught on camera and shared globally on social media which resulted in massive outrage and protests. However, there are a handful of other recent cases with distinct parallels to Floyd’s murder.
Cédric Chouviat, an Algerian 42-year-old from Paris, was pulled over by three police officers for a traffic stop in January of 2020.9 The officers pinned Chouviat to the ground for 20 seconds while his scooter helmet remained on his head.10 He said “I’m suffocating” seven times before losing consciousness and dying in the hospital two days later due to asphyxia and a broken larynx.11 After his death, the former Interior Minister stated chokeholds would be banned; however, this decision was rolled back due to protests by police unions.12 The three police officers were charged with manslaughter.
In Belgium, a 29-year-old Algerian man named by local media as Akram was arrested outside a cafe after allegedly trying to attack people and being intoxicated.13 Footage on social media depicted a police officer kneeling on Akram’s back and he died in the hospital a few hours later.14
Iliass Tahiri was an 18-year-old Moroccan citizen who was detained in a juvenile center in southern Spain last July.15 A year later, in July 2020, the security footage was released and clearly shows Tahiri handcuffed and forcibly strapped face down to a bed by six men.16 One of the officers pressed his knee into Tahiri’s neck for several minutes. Prior to the release of the video, a court ruled the death as an accident owing to his alleged violent resistance to the guards. However, the video shows that Tahiri was not resisting.17
On April 29, 2020 at a Michigan youth residential facility for foster children and behavioral health services, Cornelius Frederick, a black 16-year-old, allegedly threw a sandwich, and six staff members reacted to the situation by pinning him on the ground for 12 minutes until he lost consciousness.18 He reportedly told the staff members that he could not breathe.19 The staff then attempted to resuscitate Frederick, waiting to call 911 until 12 minutes after they stopped restraining him.20 Two days later on May 1, he died at a local hospital and his cause of death was ruled a homicide.21 As a result, three staff members and the nurse were charged with involuntary manslaughter and second-degree child abuse but are currently out on bond.22
The international community holds the responsibility to uphold human rights and protect groups of people, specifically BIPOC and minorities, from excessive force and police brutality that results in a multitude of deaths. The police are trained to enforce the law and maintain public safety; therefore, it is not their job to punish or prosecute individuals. It is imperative that accountability, deterrence, and punishment measures are put into place on an international and state level. With this in mind, the international community must:
Uphold and Follow the United Nations International Standards on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extralegal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions
The United Nations and its member states currently have convention agreements and standards on a range of issues relating to human and state security, such as nuclear nonproliferation, forced migration, and economics. One of the most successful campaigns that later became a convention was the International Campaign to Ban Landmines as it argued landmines lead to indiscriminate killings, a violation of international law. Extrajudicial killings, which are deaths of people by governmental or enforcement authorities outside of the legal process, are also a breach of international law. The countless deaths of BIPOC and other minority groups by enforcement officers directly adhere to the definition of extrajudicial killings and are therefore a violation of state and international laws.
In 1989, the United Nations General Assembly & the Economic and Social Council adopted the International Standards on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extralegal, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions in order to outline principles and steps to enforce and prevent these killings.23 The standards are fundamental to dismantling the commonality of these deaths by producing meaningful criminal proceedings and legal justice against offenders, establishing observational guidelines for evaluations of suspicious deaths, and publicizing non-compliance from governments to induce pressure for impartiality.24
In order to uphold human security, states must follow the guidelines set in place by the United Nations and apply them for the use of chokeholds and other modes of airway restrictions for police, correctional officers, and other law enforcement positions. While the guidelines and international law will not end chokeholds completely, it demonstrates a strong commitment to human rights as the states will be pushed to effectively punish the enforcement officers who are in violation of the agreement.
Make Body Cameras for Police Mandatory & Improve Organization and Efficient Sharing with Defense Counsels
A major area of contention within providing justice for police brutality victims is the lack of accountability. When the police do not have body cameras and they kill a person, there is only one side to the story. The victim cannot contest the claims by the police officers. A police officer can argue that the victim was resisting or acting violently and justify the killing. However, when body cameras are present and working, the footage can be replayed and a judge can see the two sides of the story.
Making body cameras mandatory also creates a deterrent effect: when police officers know there is a threat of punishment, there is a reduced probability of an extreme action occurring. However, many times the footage from the cameras “go missing” or they are poorly organized. An accurate naming system for the files, such as the date and police officer name, provides transparency and an efficient system to track the event in question. Enforcing a mandatory body camera policy and an organized file storage system for all enforcement officers is essential in both preventing the use of chokeholds and excessive force, but also developing accountability.
Encourage & Assure Protections for Reporters
When police brutality is observed and a person wants to report it, they would have to file a complaint with the police department itself. There is reduced transparency owing to the police department most likely wanting to cover up these allegations and not punish the officer. If people have a preconceived notion that reporting the event will not lead to proper justice, they will be less motivated to file a complaint and thus reduce accountability and deterrence measures.
In order to further promote accountability and justice for victims, those who provide information on the details of the event must be protected. It is also crucial to provide protections for those who report police brutality. This is especially vital in countries where people have reduced trust and faith in their police and political systems due to a variety of reasons such as corruption, dissent, and human rights violations. To provide protections, the state government must ensure that everyone’s identity remains anonymous and confidential by criminalizing leaks on identities and increasing the criminal punishment for violent retaliations and targeting on reporters.
1. “Police Violence Map”. Mapping Police Violence. August 3, 2020.
2. Hill, Evan et al. “How George Floyd was Killed in Police Custody”. New York Times. May 31, 2020.
6. Collins, Lauren. “Assa Traoré and the Fight for Black Lives in France”. The New Yorker. June 18, 2020.
7. Washington Post Staff. “How George Floyd’s Death Sparked Protests Around the World”. The Washington Post. June 10, 2020.
9. “Cédric Chouviat: French police charged over death of delivery driver” BBC. July 16, 2020.
13. “Belgian authorities investigate police 'kneeling' death” BBC. July 20, 2020.
15. Harley, Nicky. “Calls for Spanish Investigation into death of Iliass Tahiri after video emerges of him restrained in custody”. The National. June 17, 2020.
18. Kingkade, Tyler. “Video shows fatal restraint of Cornelius Frederick, 16, in Michigan foster facility”. NBC. July 7, 2020.
23. United Nations Office at Vienna. “Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions”. The United Nations. 1991.